The Coffin Path, by Katherine Clements, is a ghost story set on the edge of a lonesome moor in 1674. Its protagonist is thirty-two year old Mercy Booth who lives in the gradually decaying splendour of Scarcross Hall with her ageing father, Bartram, and his faithful servant, Agnes. Mercy works alongside the shepherds and farmhands hired to till their land and care for the flock of sheep that provide the family’s main income. She has been told that one day it will all be hers.
The story opens with the arrival of the first of the season’s lambs. It is not an easy birth and proves a portent of happenings to come. The first of these is the arrival of a stranger, Ellis Ferreby, who is looking for employment. Although the locals are wary of outsiders he is taken on, proving himself a capable shepherd and hard worker.
Mercy has spent her life out on the moor but notices a new, chilling presence, a feeling of being watched as she goes about familiar tasks. Within the hall she hears unexplained noises above the expected creaks and movement of the old house. There have long been rumours of a curse, and her father is suffering a decline of mind.
In her troubles Mercy finds herself drawn to Ellis although both keep their thoughts and fears close. Their interactions are noticed by a local man, Henry Ravens, who grows jealous and threatens to denounce Mercy. Within the hall, Bartram becomes agitated when items he values go missing. These include three old coins, one of which is found under the pillow of a young lad named Sam, the son of the head shepherd and a favourite of the master.
Sam is often around the hall, spending time with Bartram in his study. As the year progresses and strange events continue to unfold the boy becomes agitated and withdrawn. Mercy suspects he knows more than he is saying but cannot coax him to confide in her. Likewise she is unwilling to share her fears with even those she would previously have trusted.
Mutilated lambs are discovered and bad weather threatens the harvest. Along with the ghostly noises from an unused chamber within Scarcross there is much to concern the Booths and those who rely on their employ. Mercy fears that her sinfulness has brought down punishment from God. Ellis watches and waits, keeping his true reason for being there from all.
The plot has many elements of a good ghost story: a run down hall housing secretive sinister artefacts; rumours of an ancient curse linked to the devil; fear of the dead returning; accusations of witchcraft. The church plays a role as does the stranger with a past that is revealed gradually. It is unfortunate that I guessed the main twist early on, and that I struggled to maintain engagement as the Booth’s troubles mounted. I would have preferred a tighter plot construction and a clearer drawing together of the mysterious and the supernatural.
Having said that the last fifty pages held the strongest part of the story. There was horror aplenty and a spine chilling final line.
A tale that started and ended well enough but felt somewhat bloated in between. I am left feeling underwhelmed.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.